Facing the World: Type Design in Global Perspective

Poster announcement for Facing the World exhibition; white lettering on solid red background

Stanford Libraries’ new exhibit examines type design for the world’s scripts

Are you a typophile? A lover of design and the printed word? Are you drawn to world cultures and the diversity of human languages, past and present? Facing the World: Type Design in Global Perspective offers a guided tour to more than five centuries of “non-Latin” type design—that is, type design beyond the Latin alphabet.

On display in the Peterson Gallery in the Green Library Bing Wing are rare books and manuscripts from before Gutenberg to the digital age, drawn from the Stanford Libraries collections and on loan from participating institutions and collectors. Display cases in the Munger Rotunda feature work by contemporary type designers who design for non-Latin scripts, among them Devanagari, Gurmukhi, Tibetan, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, and Lushootseed. Specimen sheets for digital typefaces are shown with examples of the type in use in packaging, newspapers, books, and broadsides.

The historical section of the exhibit narrates the development of non-Latin typefaces across changing technologies and imperialistic influences: from the earliest specimens of Greek movable type to a sixteenth-century polyglot Bible, and from Arabic lithography and a Hebrew typewriter to some of the earliest Chinese computer fonts. The most recent entry is a display of Adobe’s Source Han Sans, an Open Type font with a multi-script glyph set of 65,535 characters.

A section of the exhibit shows Stanford’s role in the emerging field of digital type design, in the work of computer scientist Donald Knuth, creator of TeX (1978), a computational typesetting system still widely used in mathematics, physics, and other quantitative academic circles to produce high-quality articles and books. Knuth also created METAFONT (1979/1984), a programming language in which geometric equations are used to produce vector fonts. The exhibit draws on Knuth’s archive to show how his work drew international designers to Stanford to explore the application of METAFONT to non-Latin type design in the 1980s and early 1990s through an interdisciplinary program in digital type design he cofounded with Charles Bigelow.

Bigelow is among the contemporary designers whose work is featured in the rotunda cases. In partnership with Kris Holmes, he designed more than sixty non-Latin typefaces in the Lucida superfamily of fonts distributed world-wide by Apple, Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, and other technology firms. Recently, they developed the font for "Go," Google's open source programming language. (In recognition of Bigelow & Holmes’ early involvement in the field of digital typography, a Mac 512K computer, the same model on which they developed Lucida Greek in 1987, is displayed along with the 1983 Scientific American article “Digital Typography” by Bigelow and Donald Day, translated and published in multiple languages and scripts.)                 

Also on display is a diagram by Liron Lavi Turkenich that shows her process of creating the word "water" in Aravrit, a script of her own design that combines Hebrew and Arabic into words that are recognizable by readers of either language.

Lushootseed, the endangered indigenous language of Puget Sound, is represented in a digital typeface by designer Juliet Shen. An analogue version is used in summer language immersion programs at the Tulalip Cultural Center, where Language Camp students set and print with Lushootseed wood type. 

“Non-Latin” is a term that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century and steadily displaced a much older set of terms that once characterized the cutting and casting of fonts for non-Roman scripts. Dating back to the fifteenth century, earlier terms included “Oriental Founts” and “Exotic Types.” The newer “non-Latin” is a useful term for historians and contemporary practitioners alike, but is inadequate in many respects, lumping together more than one hundred orthographies from across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and Europe whose only common attribute is the fact that they do not use Latin alphabetic letters.

The quandary of categorization and terminology is the subject of comments by participating designers. Fiona Ross, Professor of Non-Latin Type Design at the University of Reading (UK), writes, “The term ‘non-Latin’ is unsatisfactory, but it is a useful umbrella term to describe diverse writing systems used by most of the world’s population. Parity between Latin and non-Latin scripts in terms of typeface quality, choice, and typesetting software is indeed possible – and is an aim truly worth striving for in a pluralistic society.”

The exhibition aims to inform, delight, intrigue, and challenge viewers to think about the impact of European colonization on the world of international type design, the potential of technology, and the meaning of pluralism as expressed through everyday typography. 


Exhibit cases are illuminated daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The gallery is accessible whenever Green Library is open; hours vary with the academic schedule. To confirm library hours, call 650-723-0931 or go to http://library.stanford.edu/libraries_collections/hours_locations.html

For a map of campus and transportation information, go to http://www.stanford.edu/dept/visitorinfo/plan/maps.html


The exhibition is free and open to the public; first-time visitors and those without Stanford ID must register at the entrance to Green Library before entering the building.